Sara Felmlee is a volunteer who has made an extraordinary difference in the lives of low income pet owners in the greater Nashville area and saved thousands of lives through the creation of spay/neuter programs. Sara’s passion for reaching these forgotten members of the community led to the creation of the mobile Spay Station, Snip & Tip Feral Cat Program, Fix for Life Clinic, and Sumner Spay Neuter Alliance.
Sara says “None of my programs ever turned anyone away. We targeted dogs and cats that would not otherwise have been spayed or neutered. All clients, no matter their situation, were treated with compassion and respect.” Sara’s programs welcomed pets with special needs, serving many for whom this was their first visit to a vet. At the time of spay/neuter, clients were also offered routine shots, heartworm tests and feline AIDS/leukemia testing.
In 1994, Sara began volunteering with the Humane Association of Wilson County. At that time, the shelter was taking in 5,000 to 6,000 cats and dogs each year, with over 90% being euthanized. She improved the care of animals in the shelter, expanded hours of operation, and began holding off-site adoption events. Sara wanted to save all the animals through adoption, but soon realized that saving lives would mean focusing on prevention through making spay and neuter services affordable to the community.
She says “We were euthanizing thousands of animals per year at the shelter. Healthy wonderful dogs and cats lost their lives simply because they were born. One day after euthanizing over 40 kittens and puppies I said, ‘This is unacceptable! I need to start a spay/neuter clinic!’ I started searching for ways, got a tip about a possible funding source and went to see a man about a donation.’”
When she first got started, Sara says “I had never done anything like this before and was told that I could not do it even by a person on my own board of directors! It was very stressful and I had a lot to learn but I was going to make it happen.”
In April of 2000, Sara began operating the Spay Station, the first mobile spay/neuter clinic in middle Tennessee. Four days a week, the 30 foot Spay Station van traveled to rural areas in middle Tennessee helping indigent people by performing an average of 27 surgeries each day. Of her clients, Sara says “They want to do the right thing but often are disabled, elderly or just barely making it. That is our target audience. They are very thankful for our services.”
Her next project was Snip & Tip, the first Trap/Neuter/Return program for feral cats in middle Tennessee. This was an all-volunteer program that began in 2004. Sara recruited veterinarians, technicians, vet students and other volunteers for a one-day marathon of spaying and neutering feral cats. This program involved scheduling, loaning 150 traps, a MASH type clinic set up, tear down, clean up, trap return, and aftercare. These clinics were held monthly 10 times per year. Eight to ten surgery tables were set up and being used by veterinarians at the same time. Snip & Tip’s free spay/neuter services for feral cats are now offered through the Fix for Life clinic in Lebanon, TN.
Sara says “At first I was not a fan of TNR. I thought cats should be pampered pets that lived in our homes. The feral cats brought to my shelter were always euthanized – nobody wanted them. But, eventually I met a lot of people with feral cats in their backyards, barns and woods. These people truly cared about these creatures that they had never touched. They provided them with food, water and shelter. I realized that it was better to spay/neuter than to allow them to reproduce uncontrollably. When I started S&T it was wonderful to see the old farmers, business owners and housewives coming in with traps full of cats. They were so happy to have a non lethal option to control the population of cats.”
She says “Some people were against TNR. I was very realistic and told them that they had 3 options – have the cats destroyed, spay/neuter and stabilize the colony or allow them to breed and let the problem get even worse. It was really up to them.”
One of the challenges Sara faced in creating the Snip & Tip program was recruiting veterinarians. But the monthly clinics always ran smoothly and professionally.
When asked why she chose to start a TNR program, Sara says “I saw a need. Feral cats contribute greatly to pet overpopulation and needed help. The response was overwhelming and the waiting list for services was long. We spay/neuter an average of 130 cats per clinic – one clinic was 257 cats! The volunteers were wonderful. It was a rewarding program.”
In 2008, The Humane Association of Wilson County became New Leash on Life. Sara says she realized there was a gap between the free mobile spay/neuter services offered to low income families and the services offered at private veterinary clinics. Sara says “When thinking about opening Fix for Life, I worried about crossing the line and upsetting the veterinarians in the area. I have so much respect for them. I knew that offering low cost services to the general public would ruffle some feathers but I always say, ‘do the right thing regardless of the consequences’ so I rented a veterinary clinic that had closed down and started renovating and writing grants.” Fix for Life, a Humane Alliance model clinic finally opened in 2008, a program of New Leash on Life. This program provided high quality, high volume spay/neuter services to the community. Under Sara’s leadership, the clinic operated 4 days a week, performing 44 surgeries a day.
Sara and June McMahon had worked together on spay/neuter projects for many years. June’s dream was to open a spay/neuter clinic in Sumner County. They partnered and the Sumner Spay Neuter Alliance clinic opened in July of 2011. A unique and exciting opportunity presented itself when the county decided to build a new animal control facility. The sheriff Bob Barker agreed to give SSNA 1,200 square feet in the facility for a spay/neuter clinic. The space was an open room with block walls and a concrete floor.
Sara designed the clinic and soon found herself serving as the general contractor, hiring people to build out the clinic. The SSNA team had to raise $140,000 in a short period of time before opening so fundraising was a challenge, but through grant-writing and donations, the money came through. Six months later, Sara says “We have a beautiful clinic, an awesome staff, including the most talented, compassionate and professional veterinarian that I have ever had. We have more business than we can keep up with! Sara works full-time as the Program Director on a volunteer basis.
Sara offers this advice to individuals interested in starting a low-cost spay/neuter clinic in their community: “Offer the best possible service; hire the best people. Your program will be under a microscope so do everything as well or better than any other clinic. The best form of advertising is word of mouth. People talk to each other and if we provide a great service they will tell friends. And have a good amount of money in the bank before you open.”
While at the Humane Association of Wilson County, Sara’s spay/neuter programs combined were responsible for spaying and neutering over 60,000 cats and dogs. The Sumner Spay Neuter Alliance has spayed and neutered 2,300 dogs and cats to date. They are sterilizing approximately 140 per week.
Overall, Sara Felmlee’s low-cost and free spay/neuter programs have altered more than 63,000 cats and dogs over 14 years. These animals would have gone on to reproduce, causing more suffering and death. Many of the pets spayed and neutered by Sara Felmlee’s programs were able to be adopted or remain in their homes because of the low-cost surgeries that these programs provided.
Sara has never received financial compensation for any of her work in animal welfare. She does this full time, often putting in 50-60 hours per week. In addition to spay/neuter, she works with several animal shelters and rescue groups helping in any way that she can including fostering dogs and cats at her home.